When we’re devising the digital bits of policy engagement plans in DH we talk a lot about “credible voices”, “thought leaders” and “influencers”.
We know that the potential power of the social web is dependant on people talking to each other, offering opinions, and sharing stories. And we know that many of the thought leaders for the health and care system have offices in the Department of Health.
It’s possible just to use social media to help deliver and amplify messages on behalf of an organisation. But corporate channels aren’t where the engagement happens. More people have conversations with @amyatdh (with her 688 followers) than with @dhgovuk (with 37,221).
And it’s possible to be anonymous online. But I’ve never bought any of the arguments for doing that, however eloquently they’ve been made. In government, where we consult, and invite people to contribute to the policy making process, anonymous engagement just isn’t useful. I like reading the Secret Footballer, but it’s rare to find a good reason to withhold your identity (and it’s Kevin Davies, right?).
For me digital engagement is about people using (mostly) open social channels, under their own names, to form communities, share opinions and collaborate. There’s only so much you can do without people doing it themselves. A tweet from a corporate twitter channel rarely provides useful digital engagement (or real reach, because corporate channels are easily ignored). And similarly, an anonymous blog or comment, or a line from a “spokesperson” posted in a forum, has limited value.
In my last job I was very lucky that so many FCO thought leaders chose to write blogs. Not all of the blogs were strategic digital digital diplomacy masterpieces, but every new post on blogs.fco.gov.uk encouraged a culture of effective digital engagement, and the possibility of useful policy engagement – the result of people openly offering opinions online, under their own name. We have fewer bloggers at DH, but we have some gems.
Alistair Burns is the National Clinical Director for Dementia. It’s his job to lead the delivery of the National Dementia Strategy. He’s as expert and authoritative as anyone about what we’re doing in this country to address the problems caused by dementia.
The DH digital team have helped him out with a few things and made some suggestions. But he’s doing this stuff himself because he sees the value in it.
Some of the things he does are linked to big communications campaigns, like the work we’ve been doing around the Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge. But the fact that he’s doing this stuff already makes a webchat with Gransnet much less of a novelty, and it’s better for that.
When he goes to a tea dance in Bury and posts an audio interview from his phone, that’s not the result of a bullet point the digital team have added to a media handling submission. It’s just because he’s there, and he sees some value in doing it.
And when he films a video interview for the Design Council, that comes very naturally too.
This kind of online behaviour is not typical amongst government thought leaders, but it’s becoming more common. As more people do it, digital engagement managers in government will spend less time persuading people that this stuff if worth doing at all, and more time finding ways to do it brilliantly.